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Attitudes About Pollution in the 1950s –1970s: They Were Different, According to Former Whitehall Teacher Rosemary Davidson Vreeland

May 29, 2013 1 comment

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I had the pleasure of interviewing my former sixth grade teacher, Rosemary Davidson Vreeland, a few weeks ago. I hadn’t realized when I was in sixth grade at Whitehall Schools, that in the 1950s, Rosemary and her husband, Jim, had transferred from the Hooker Chemical Company in Niagara Falls, New York to the White Lake area where Jim would head up the laboratory for the new company.

I was in sixth grade in 1971. Pollution issues relating to Hooker Chemical Company were not raised in the community until the mid to late 1970s, so it is not surprising that I was not aware of her husband’s work and their background.  It’s also not surprising considering the general attitudes and state of knowledge about pollution.  It was not a topic of everyday conversation in a rural community like ours, and in an age well before the easy availability of information such as we have today.  Rosemary talks about how pollution was considered to be quite common in the heavily industrialized Niagara Falls region and how pollution associated with industry was a given.  Even so, she said thoughts of pollution were not consistent with her new hometown, with its scenic lakes, rivers, and forests.  Rosemary recalls the tension that arose for her as a teacher as White Lake’s pollution issues came to the community’s attention. She concludes by explaining how she does not want to apologize for Hooker Chemical Company, but instead to describe what she remembers as a very different mindset about pollution.

It is interesting to know the variety of thoughts that people had during this time.  I am grateful to Rosemary for agreeing to the interview.  It reminded me of a much more innocent time and helped to add important context to our community’s story.

Your thoughts?  They are always welcome!

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May 20, 2013 2 comments

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Get ready for some good news!  Several interviews have been posted recently that focus on cleanup of White Lake, from the establishment of a Great Lakes program by an international agency to assist communities like the White Lake area address pollution problems, to the formation of a local citizen advisory group in 1992 that has helped to guide White Lake to a successful recovery.  In these recent interviews, you will find out about the International Joint Commission and its effort to help the public get involved and push for cleanups.  You will also learn about the important roles of the White Lake Public Advisory Council and Muskegon Conservation District.  The topics covered in these interviews are a little more technical and focused on process, but are valuable for explaining the framework through which progress has been made at restoring our lake.

View the John Hartig interview and Jeff Auch and Greg Mund interview to find out more.

What are your thoughts?  Were you aware of the International Joint Commission and did you know about the efforts of the White Lake Public Advisory Council and Muskegon Conservation District?

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A Lesson from “The Tragedy of White Lake”

May 6, 2013 4 comments

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I watched the film, ““The Tragedy of White Lake” a few weeks before we showed it at the Howmet Playhouse on April 25, and realized I had watched it years ago.  I can’t recall exactly when.  But it made more of an impression on me this second time, most likely because I am now much more familiar with our local environmental history and I understand the importance of the activism of a few key local residents.

It was fascinating to see our community’s youthful local activists, like A. Winton “Wint” Dahlstrom and Marion Dawson, whom I met in their later years.  I was really impressed by Warren Dobson, the Hooker Chemical Company worker who quit his job at the plant due to his concerns about ongoing pollution and alerted the state environmental authorities about the problems.  He was obviously intelligent and his decision was not made lightly.  I don’t know much about Mr. Dobson’s life after he quit his job and left town (some said for fear of his life). I do know that at some point, he returned to the area and was killed in a motorcycle accident in the last decade.   He did our community a great service and I wish we could have thanked him properly.    

It didn’t take huge numbers of people in our community to raise the alarm about White Lake’s pollution and eventually get the attention of state environmental regulators.  What it did take, however, was a few people who were not afraid to speak up, put time into researching the issues, and pursue answers and action persistently and doggedly.  I am very grateful for their efforts.

About “The Tragedy of White Lake.”    The film was produced in 1978 by students from Grand Valley State College.  It shows many scenes from the White Lake area in the 1970s and features lengthy interviews with local activists, A. Winton “Wint” Dalhlstrom, Whitehall businessman James Tate, and Marion Dawson, Warren Dobson, the former Hooker Chemical Company plant worker who alerted state environmental authorities to pollution at the company’s property, former Hooker Chemical Company manager Duane Colpoys, Howard Tanner, then director of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, and assistant attorney general, Steward Freeman, who pursued cleanup when pollution was brought to light by local citizens.  

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Memories of Marion (Dawson) Gunderson on Being a Young Mom Fighting Pollution

April 25, 2013 1 comment

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Marion (Dawson) Gunderson now lives in North Carolina.  She lived in the White Lake area in the 1970s and 1980s.  A young mother of a toddler son, she became concerned about chemical smells in the air and set out to find out more about this and how it might affect her family and community.  She developed and used an informal survey for her neighbors and determined that the odors came from the Hooker Chemical Company.  She brought  her concerns about air pollution to state environmental officials, and this along with other local efforts, was instrumental in bringing local pollution issues to light and ultimately getting cleanups underway.

Listen to Marion’s interview

It was done via Skype, so you may need to adjust the volume for best listening.

Her interview, along with the others completed to date, helps to “paint a picture” of the 1970s and 1980s.  One conclusion I am drawing is that it didn’t take a huge number of people to make a difference.  A small group of people with diverse backgrounds and talents rose to the occasion to alert the community to the hazards of industrial pollution, so it could be addressed properly. I am thankful to all of them.

Your comments?  Please post them here!

 

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Dan Parker’s Story: Growing up a “Hooker Kid”

April 19, 2013 2 comments

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Dan Parker has an interesting story to tell.  He grew up in Montague and after living in many different places, including Germany, is now back in his family home.  In his interview, Dan shares what it was like growing up a “Hooker Kid,” as children of Hooker Chemical Company employees were casually termed.  He explains how he gradually changed his viewpoint of the company as he became a young adult.

There are themes that run through Dan’s interview that can be found in other interviews:  how at first, the overall community attitude toward the new chemical companies coming to the area was positive, and how over time, even some of the biggest supporters of the new industries began to realize that there was a cost to the boost to the local economy –  a cost that some would eventually conclude was too high.

Listen to Dan’s interview here:  Dan Parker Interview

What are your thoughts?  How do you compare the benefits to the economy with the costs of environmental cleanup and the stigma of pollution?

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Hooker Chemical Company: A Worker’s Viewpoint

April 4, 2013 2 comments

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In the last several weeks, I’ve appreciated the opportunity to be able to interview several people who worked at the area’s chemical companies.  I’ve especially appreciated their willingness to express their candid viewpoints, as I am sure they are aware that their opinions may not be shared by the majority of community members.

Longtime Montague resident Betty Nafe worked as a lab technician at Hooker Chemical Company, one of several jobs during her adult life.  Growing up during the Depression, she says she was glad to get the job and it was a good one.  Even though she did not have formal training in chemistry, Betty said she loved her work and felt as if she would have enjoyed a full fledged professional career in a chemistry related field.

When asked what she and other workers thought when pollution concerns associated with her workplace emerged, Betty said she was surprised because the thinking at the time was that having the plant in a sandy area meant that any contamination would be filtered.  But she also was confident that any pollution would be addressed properly by company officials.  She said that was what most workers at the company thought.

Listen to Betty’s interview here to learn more about her viewpoint.   Do you know of any former workers at our area chemical companies?  Did you work at one of the companies?  What are your thoughts?

Betty Nafe in the lab at Hooker Chemical Company

Betty Nafe in the lab at Hooker Chemical Company

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Did You Know That Blueberry Ridge Subdivision Residents Were on National TV in the Late 1970s?

March 13, 2013 2 comments

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One of the reasons for initiating the White Lake Environmental History Project was to uncover little known stories about our industrial pollution era.  A recent interview of several Blueberry Ridge subdivision neighbors showed this to be true.  Even though I’ve lived in the White Lake area all my life, I had never heard this intriguing story.

The neighbors — Bev Hunt, Jim Cousino, and Jane Hanna — talked about how they (and others in the subdivision) found out their wells were contaminated by chemicals from the former Hooker Chemical Company and what they did to get the company to provide them with safe drinking water.  The group wrote letter after letter to politicians at all levels, including U.S. Representative Guy Vanderjagt, Governor Milliken, and President Carter.

In the interview (scroll down to see here at: Oral Histories)  they talk about how things began to change when their issue became national news, with a spot by TV journalist Brit Hume, and when news of Hooker Chemical (Occidental)’s pollution problems almost halted the company’s purchase of another company.

A small group of people CAN make a big difference!

Blueberry Ridge Milliken letter pg 1

Letter to Governor Milliken (page 1)

President Carter article

News article on Hooker Chemical issue getting the attention of President Carter

Vanderjagt response letter

Response from U.s. Representative Vanderjagt

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